"Exploring food helped me write my own history" - Food Writer Yemisi Aribisala

Over at Chuku's HQ we love a good book, almost as much as we love Nigerian food, almost. So when we heard about Yemisi Aribisala's new book exploring Nigerian food, we couldn't wait to read it. Fascinated as much by the author as the book, our sibling duo then had some questions to ask Yemisi. 

Where did the idea for Longthroat Memoirs come from and why the particular title?

The book came from the compilation of blogs that I wrote for two years and a few months for the Nigerian newspaper 234Next. More accurately, the book was made up of the compilation and fine-tuning of those blogs. There was no idea for a book because I wasn’t writing one. Much later on, after a lot of the articles had been written, I realised that I had been uncalculatedly holding a discussion that Nigerians hadn’t ever bothered starting.  For the first few blogs, I was talking to myself. Talking about Nigerian food, our palate preferences, our history written in morsels, our rationales for putting food in our mouth, our food language, our ingredients, our forgotten recipes, our unexplored feelings about our own food, our cultural dictions hidden in food preparation. 

The conversation picked up and people started to send me corrections for my thinking and writing. They sent me emails saying 

“Yemisi, you are wrong about that recipe- this is how it is done. If you want the Akara to make plump pillows, never put the salt in the whole batch, just into the one you are about to fry…and you can’t skimp on the oil, never. You’ve just got to let it be.” 

I made corrections to my thinking and my writing –thousands of them. At least six rounds of edits that included my input were done on the collated articles, many more without. Over time, over the long course of reluctant conversations and visits to people’s kitchens and weekly market trawls, and collecting anecdotes, eavesdropping on elderly women in Calabar’s Marian market, and Bibi Bakare-Yusuf’s relentless tweaking, a book emerged, but there was no intention to write a book in the beginning.

Longthroat Memoirs was the title of a 234Next blog post about keeping watch over the street from the balcony of my grandparent’s house in Oke-ado, Ibadan: looking out eagerly for street vendors who carried their wares in impossibly heavy basins, or on trays, and walked up and down the streets hawking moin-moin, boiled corn, eko-tutu (white corn patties wrapped in banana leaf), oranges, fresh meat. They all had distinct powerful calls that they projected into the streets and into the rooms in your house. Their words created mouth-watering imagery and gave a slow motion reel feel to the street, gave reverberating sound to our space like that on a theatre stage. 

You sensed strongly the adhesiveness of food in one street; in one community. Food as glue. Food was that gregarious personality that couldn’t be kept indoors, that walked around and knocked on people’s doors without invitation, engaging everyone in conversation. A rather thick skinned fellow. I wrote in the article that over time, you could distinguish who was cooking by the aroma in the air and that appeased the mind and reassured you that all was well with the neighbour who owned the stew-ensign. 

So Longthroat Memoirs was about the daily back and forth and the imagery generated by words sent out- because we were never allowed to go downstairs and engage the vendors. All we had were their words and our minds and bellies intuitively crafted a relationship with those words. I was looking for a title for the blog that was to move to my own website when 234Next closed its doors, and I came to the conclusion that the title of that particular chapter was perfect. Longthroat is a clever Nigerian word and “memoirs” tells you that there is going to be a lot of personal recounting of food stories. The word memoir also has a texture in the mouth that makes the pairing quite wonderful to the ears. Bibi Bakare-Yusuf added on Soups, Sex and Nigerian Tastebuds because I believe she knew from many years of assiduous tailoring of titles for books that Longthroat Memoirs were beautiful words, but that they needed untangling for the reader and hearer.   

You talk about Nigerian food as being a character, to someone who has never tried Nigerian food before, how would you describe him/her?

Nigerian food as a character would be a very down to earth fellow who never puts on airs. He’ll be a little heavy set, with a pot belly. He’ll be very wise and say things you’ll easily disregard then come back ten years later to find that he was right all along. You might underestimate his abilities, his competence or jump to conclusions about his like-ability because he doesn’t dress ostentatiously, talk loudly, nor own a trendy haircut. His true friends will swear that they can’t go a week without seeing him or talking to him. To those who like small talk, he’ll only be good for them in small doses. All in all, a good hearted, cheerful fellow with peppery wit.

We are big believers that food cannot be separated from its culture and from your exploration of Nigerian food, what are you favourite aspects of Nigerian culture?

“One” of my favourite aspects of Nigerian culture as it relates to food has to be the energetic outdoor cooking related to parties, weddings and funerals; the impossible feeding of sometimes thousands of guests. You’ve got to blow up the Nigerian kitchen and knock down the wallsand take the roof off otherwise, you can’t really pound yam, no arm space, no firm flooring…you can’t make amala, you can’t cook the best kind of jollof rice that requires an “Agbari Ojukwu”, and you can’t burn the hair off the ram-carcass so that the aroma of scorching remains on the meat. There are just some things, some meals, you can’t cook within the confines of a room called a kitchen, no matter how big the kitchen is. And that irrepressibility when it lands on your plate is unmistakable and delicious and heady. Then you can’t generate all those activities, create all that happiness and ambiance then expect that you are going to eat alone – the cooking has engaged the whole street, the whole municipality, so you’ve got to feed everyone, otherwise… There is something also very comforting about being a distance away and having the aroma of cooking food, delicious blended firewood smoke, talking people, giant spoons clanging against the sides of pots, carried to you, on a weekend perhaps when you are relaxed and staring out of a window.  Add in the tuning up of a highlife band no matter how amateurish. All the delicious melange of sounds. It’s wonderful, especially from a safe introspective distance to the activities. 

When telling people you were writing a book on Nigerian food, you said that many people expected you to be writing a recipe book. Your book however, maybe to some people’s surprise focuses more on the influence of food on life and life on food. What impact has food had on your life and vice-versa?

How many days do you have for the unraveling of the answer to that question? I’ll just say that to effectively satisfy my hunger – and that hunger extended beyond that of the belly, I had to understand intricately the territory that is called my gut. Exploring food helped me write my own history, tie together all the different categories of my historical and present hunger, harness my instincts and create a portfolio for myself and for my children. Eating every day is a signing of a register that you are alive, capable of eating and digesting food, capable of participating in life therefore, it carries imprints of everything that has to do with living. Even introverted types like me participate in community very effectively and very enthusiastically over tables of food because food makes people happy, eases tension and helps us not be so self-conscious. A good meal engenders natural kindness. I’ve had reticent guests to my dining table that after a good meal told me about their whole lives. 

When I was researching my children’s food intolerances I discovered that almost 80% of our immunity lies in our gut. That simple piece of information that is so profound in its influence helped me keep my children out of hospital. I don’t remember the last time we’ve been. When someone complains of feeling under the weather, Nsala with all the hot, bitter, sweet, pungent spices, and a free range chicken is the surefire cure.

You say the stories of Nigerian food largely remain untold, what is your own favourite personal story involving Nigerian food?

There are too many stories at my disposal for me to choose one as my favourite, but the one my mind always gravitates towards is one afternoon walking into Yellow Chilli restaurant on Lagos Island and ordering a bowl of takeaway Okro soup with goat meat. I had low expectations and the container was just one of those yellow plastic containers that you have to spend a few hours washing to get the palm oil out of the skin of the container. I opened the take away when I got home and was immediately blown away. The cooked okro was cut into penne-lisce pieces, pulsating green and white under just a faint complexion of fresh palm oil. The goat meat was soft and falling off the bone. The marrow in the goat bones was better than butter. It spread on your tongue then released the aroma of soup into the close confines of your mouth.  And that aroma was to die for. I went back to Yellow Chilli many times after that day and never ever got the same bowl of okro.  There was so much potential in that yellow plastic container. If one poured the soup into a clean white bowl, it just immediately became fine-dining. 

In our family, food is at the heart of all our social gathering, so if you could invite any three people, alive or dead, to join you at a family gathering, who would you invite and what would be on the menu?

Can I invite just two? They would be Maya Angelou because she was so gracious, her words so powerful. When she died, I had a real sense of regret that I never shook her hand regardless of whether or not I would have ever ended up in the same room as her. AND she was a fabulous cook. I would have wanted all her secrets. My second invitation would be to Chiwetel Ejiofor. For a few months he was in my backyard in Calabar filming Half of a Yellow Sun, and Muhtar Bakare of Kachifo Limited offered to bring him and the crew to dinner at my house. I panicked and made some excuse. I think now, I was expecting they’d want to come and eat something beyond my humble abilities. Later on in an interview, I read that from Calabar Chiwetel went to New Orleans and had Okro and plantains. And I thought, Oh!

So on the menu, really really fresh briskly cooked Okro with the biggest juiciest king prawns, small bite sized snails, plenty of Nkonko, ground Cameroonian peppers, one or two aromatic Ose Nsukka and a dash of palm oil…maybe some chopped leaks if I feel like it, served with steamed ripe plantains.

When we started reading your book it was a treat to ourselves at the end of the long week, some much needed down-time. When you are not writing or cooking, how do you like to chill and unwind?

A pot of Vanilla Roiboos tea, a pretty tea-cup, a big window and many perfectly soundless minutes just staring out of the window at the Helderberg mountains, the Strand and the sky.

Longthroat Memoirs is published by Cassava Republic and you can get your own copy here.